In this small painting, the Virgin Mary and infant Christ are seated in an enclosed garden (known in Latin as a hortus conclusus, it traditionally symbolised Mary’s virginity). She holds out a flower to her son – a ‘pink’, also known as a dianthus (meaning ‘flower of God’ in Latin). It was often included in images of the Virgin and Child as a reference to the Crucifixion, specifically the nails that fastened Christ to the Cross: its scent resembles that of cloves, which look like little nails.
It is possible this painting was made by members of Schongauer’s workshop.
This small painting shows the Virgin Mary and infant Christ seated on a turf bench, from which a variety of plants grow. The two holy figures are separated from the landscape beyond by a wattle fence, and framed by the boughs of a small cherry tree.
Martin Schongauer specialised in small-scale pictures of the Virgin and Child. In the late medieval period, the image of the Virgin seated in an enclosed garden (known in Latin as a hortus conclusus) was popular in Schongauer’s native Alsace region. The subject comes from the Song of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament, in which a woman is described as an enclosed garden (Song of Solomon 4: 12). In Christian theology the woman was interpreted as the Virgin Mary, and the enclosed garden was thought to be a symbol of her perpetual virginity.
Gardens in Christian imagery also recalled the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were expelled after eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of life – humankind’s first sin. In Christian theology, Christ was the ’second Adam‘ and Mary the ’second Eve’, and Christ’s death at the Crucifixion redeemed the sin of humanity. Schongauer makes reference to Christ’s sacrifice with the carnation (or pink) that his mother presents to him. The flower is known in German as the Nelke (‘nail flower’) because its scent resembles that of cloves, which look like nails. It served as a reminder of the nails that fastened Christ to the Cross.
The mother and child are surrounded by botanical symbols connected to the Virgin: the strawberries in the foreground, which are sweet and have no stone; the violets, red campion and white stock; and the prominent iris in the right foreground, known in German as Schwertlilie (’sword lily'), which relates to her pain at Christ’s death. The cherry tree was also symbolic of the Virgin in medieval devotional imagery, and its deep red colour was a reference to the blood of Christ.
It is possible the painting was made by members of Schongauer’s workshop. His best known and only dated work shares the same subject: a large panel in the Dominican church of Saint Martin in Colmar, which shows the holy figures seated in a rose bower. Although that work has been cut down at the top and sides, we know from a sixteenth-century copy (now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) that it once included irises, positioned, as in our panel, on the right.
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